Drummer Keith Hollis was already inspired by the music of jazz great Art Blakey — and then he had the opportunity to learn the story behind the songs.
“(Sandy Warren) gave me a book that she wrote about Art’s life,” recalls Hollis, referring to Blakey’s longtime companion. “You know, before I read the book, I was familiar with some of his tunes, the tunes he wrote and played with the Jazz Messengers. But my whole perception of the music changed with that book. It gave me a deeper understanding of who he was.”
Blakey, who died in 1990 and is considered one of the fathers of bebop music, was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 2001 and received a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 2005. But the musician also experienced struggles, Hollis would learn — and that pain was expressed through his music.
“A lot of these guys went through so much,” Hollis says. “You don’t hear the other side of the story, the part where he grew up and he was abandoned, and his dad rejected him, and the abuse he suffered. So when I heard that, I read that story and how he struggled with that for years — and wound up doing drugs to cope — it really inspired me as a musician to keep playing, keep writing, and it taught me that expression is the lesson.”
Hollis will once again bring his band to the Jersey Shore Jazz Vespers for a special one-night concert. “Music for Martin and Art,” a tribute to both the music of Art Blakey and The Jazz Messengers and the message and spirit of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., will take place 4 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 19, at Asbury United Methodist Church in Atlantic City. The show is free, and refreshments will follow the performance.
“It’s a tribute to Art and to Martin,” says Hollis, who will be joined on stage by Andy Lalasis on bass, Frank Strauss on keyboards and Ron Olender on saxophone. “From what I understand, Martin was a big fan of jazz, so they put the two together as a tribute. I should have jumped on this a long time ago. It’s not just going to be the traditional, straight-ahead jazz. But a little fusion contemporary jazz mixed in there also.”
Warren, Blakey’s longtime companion and author of “Art Blakey Cookin’ and Jammin,” will display photos of the drummer from her private collection as well as record jackets from Blakey’s vinyl collection.
In addition, Warren’s book, “Art Blakey Cookin’ and Jammin’: Recipes and Remembrances from a Jazz Life,” will be available for purchase.
Blakey lived in Northfield for a time and enjoyed hanging out and playing in Atlantic City, Warren has said.
“I think it’s a real cool thing to have her there, because she was Art Blakey’s wife for the most part,” says Hollis, whose latest album “Uptown” is slated for an early spring release.
“She is a walking, breathing library of Art Blakey walking among us. I never got a chance to meet him personally, but (knowing her) it’s almost the same.”
Hollis, an Atlantic City native, was only 6 years old when Blakey and his family, including longtime companion Sandy Warren, moved to Northfield. The young drummer never met Blakey, but he listened to him and studied his techniques.
By the time Hollis was 9, he was playing drums at his father Raymond’s Connecticut Avenue church, Friendship Outreach Deliverance Ministries. Hollis carries on the family tradition by continuing to play the Hammond B3 organ at Sunday services. He has toured Europe with the Harlem Gospel Singers and accompanied artists such as Gerald Veasley, Dexter Wansel, Bonnie Siegler, Jean Carn and many Sound of Philadelphia artists.
“We’re all out here, doing what we do, expressing the spirit within us,” Hollis says. “Art, really, through his music, really showed me that it’s all about expression. I can hear it in some of his music.”